The opening sequence of David Lean's 1948 film Oliver Twist is so striking, so evocative of the time and the place and so gripping that the viewer, even a casual one, cannot look away for the rest of the picture.
Finally she glimpses a light coming from the window of a building off in the distance. In agony she finds the strength to make it there. It is the parish workhouse. She rings the bell pull as the rain breaks and drenches her. At last she is let in. In the following scenes we see she has given birth to a boy and after kissing her newborn dies in bed.
That description does not do justice to the cinematic power of the combined abilities of Lean, his editor, his cameraman and his designer. It must not be written about; it must be seen.
Oliver Twist is the finest screen version of this Dickens story and is, perhaps, Lean's greatest film. After that brilliant opening sequence we are soon plunged into the darker world of Victorian poverty as we witness the growth and adventures of a young child born out of wedlock, thrust into the tender mercies of the masters of the workhouse, escape and finding himself lost in London, falling into the clutches of the sinister Fagin and his band of child thieves and finally, after a life of fear, hunger and intrigue, is finally taken in by a family who loves him.
|Art Director John Bryan's sketch for the opening sequence.|
British films reached their summit in the 1940s and with a very few exceptions never again reached such heights of art and craftsmanship so evident in films like Oliver Twist. Lean went on in future years to make three-hour-long epics but never again equalled his earlier achievements, especially in his two Dickens adaptations (the other one being the superb Great Expectations of 1946). What makes this film so memorable is its exact depiction of life among the lower classes in England at that time. Dickens himself was appalled at what he saw around him when he wrote his novels and in those writings he drew the world's attention to the pitiful state of the poor and children - especially children who were forced for one reason or another to do hard, brutal labor. This Lean depicts with simple clarity, with the exquisite black and white photography the perfect medium for expressing it. Color film (readily available in films from the late 1920s) would not have worked at all. It would not have had the same dramatic effect; it had to be in black and white, and it had to be photographed by cameramen who understood black and white, as most cinematographers did in those great days. [Today's cameramen, oblivious to the possibilities of monochrome photography, usually botch the job terribly on those rare occasions when black and white is used. Put more prosaically, they don't know what they're doing.]
The other thing the British film industry had going for itself in those days was a rich supply of the finest acting talent available anywhere, before or since. Modern audiences accustomed to the mugging and miserable acting so common (and so accepted) today will be quite shocked at the rightness, the quality of the performances in this film. There are far too many perfect performances to discuss in detail here so let us focus on the ones that occupy the most screen time.
As the notorious Fagin, leader of the band of child thieves, we have Alec Guiness in a performance so faultless that one hardly believes one's eyes. When Guiness went to Lean and asked him for the part Lean scoffed at the idea. He stopped scoffing when Guiness returned to present himself to him in full makeup.
His Fagin is a real living and breathing person. It is the actor's art to make an audience forget they are watching acting and Guiness accomplishes it. He is believable. He brings out the villainy of Fagin yet manages to make us at times sympathetic with such a creature. This is a difficult task for any actor even one as skillful as Guiness. Like others in the cast Guiness imprints upon your memory a vivid character that will stay in the mind. You won't forget him.
[Whenever discussing Guiness as Fagin one must, alas, trudge through the fetid swamp of name-calling and manufactured outrage. His performance was denounced as "anti-semirtism" and an ignorant, vicious campaign was raised up against the film due to it. Dickens wrote Fagin as a villainous Jew and Guiness played the part as written. Eventually this whole denunciation was seen as the nonsense it was and the movie played as filmed all over the world, except in America. The hoopla in America was so over-the-top that a fearful distributor sat on the film for two years and only released it after twelve minutes were cut from it, twelve crucial minutes, simply because of the unjust charge laid against Guiness and the film. Fortunately the recent dvd release of the film restored all the cuts.]
There is no gainsaying the rightness of Guiness in this role as there is no gainsaying the rightness of everyone else in the picture. Robert Newton is the villain Bill Sykes. It is his special brand of bulging hatred that makes Newton's role so compelling. Nasty, brutish, cunning, all these come out with great force in Newton's delineation of the character. The scene of Sykes' murder of the prostitute Nancy is a powerful one. I will not spoil it by describing it in detail but will say that it does not sink to the level of sadism so common in today's movies, ones made by sensationalists and incompetents like Scorcese or that overblown amateur Quentin Tarantino. It is all the more powerful for avoiding the splattered blood of which today's directors are so fond. But it is powerful.
|Newton as Bill Sykes|
Why is this film so remarkable? Because it was made by artists and craftsmen, artists and craftsmen whom we should name: the sets (so crucial to the picture) were the work of designers John Bryan and Wilfred Shingleton, it's camera work and lighting by Guy Green who was fortunate to have such superb sets to photograph, its editor Jack Harris who knew a thing or two about putting films together, its score by Sir Arnold Bax so well suited to the visuals. The sets which one can never tire of praising were built in what is called "forced perspective" so that one is actually drawn into them. They are complemented by the shooting of them with low camera angles in order to emphasize this perspective, this vastness. It is what gives the movie its striking look.
This is art and artifice of the choicest kind, the kind that has all but vanished from the screen. If you want to see how movies were once made by men with skill and imagination and originality, you could do no better than to see this one. It is a pity that there are no theatrical showings (at least in this country) of the film on a big screen which would give it its best effectiveness. Second best, of course, is the dvd. If you do plan to view it on dvd I suggest finding a quiet evening, watching it on the largest tv screen available and with the telephone off the hook. Watching this film, according to film critic Leslie Halliwell, is like reading the book in a particularly fine binding.
Lean and his writers have somewhat simplified the story but without losing any of its power. Charles Dickens would I am sure be proud.
I bring up this wonderful film as an antidote to the cinematic Dark Ages now upon us, an age which is incapable of making such a fine thing as this. It cannot be recommended highly enough both as entertainment and as an experience worth having. Give it a look.
|John Howard Davies as Oliver Twist|